Travel-starved Americans are scrambling to book vacations

By Debra Kamin

When President Joe Biden said in a national address earlier this month that barbecues and in-person get-togethers might be possible for the July 4 holiday, many Americans became hopeful that they might reclaim another summer tradition: the vacation.

Even before the president’s cautiously optimistic speech, online search and booking activity for summer travel was breaking records. On Hopper, a travel booking app, there’s been a nearly 75% increase in searches for late-summer flights since late February, when the third vaccine was approved for the United States. Travel search site KAYAK is also seeing interest for summer travel steadily increase, with search traffic on its site growing as much as 27% each week.

As for bookings, Hopper reports that domestic bookings are up 58% so far this month compared to all of March 2019. More Americans, it seems, are planning sunshine breaks, reunions with grandchildren or just getting away.

“We will literally go anywhere, we’re so desperate to travel,” said Minda Alena, a New Jersey-based interior designer and creative director who is in the process of planning four trips this summer and fall. “We just want to get on a plane and feel like we’ve stepped away from our lives for a week.”

Shifting consumer attitudes

The pandemic decimated the travel industry last year: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted a decrease in the global tourism economy of up to 80% after accounting for all of 2020’s data. But with the pace of vaccinations accelerating and travel numbers ticking up, a rebound — at least in domestic travel — feels imminent.

A poll conducted by Amazing America, a website dedicated to the American road trip, found that more than 75% of respondents believe it will be safe to travel this summer. (More than 68% said the pandemic has pushed them to choose domestic travel over international.)

Halee Whiting, owner of the hotel sales consultancy Hospitality With a Flair, creates pricing strategies and tailored packages for hotel brands. Nearly 70% of the web traffic for her clients, she said, is now for travel between July and mid-September.

“People are itching to get out, but they’re still hesitant,” she said. “With the vaccine being more prevalent and states starting to loosen their guidelines, this summer will be when they are ready to tiptoe out of their bubble.”

For hotels and rental cottages, ‘demand is real’

Indeed, many travel agencies and lodging operators are already seeing numbers that outpace 2019, which was a banner year for the travel industry.

Vacasa, a rental home-management site, reports its reservations at large family-style properties are up more than 300% over last year. Stand-alone rental cottages were a big draw for vacationers in 2020 — thanks to their promise of privacy — and this summer travelers are again snapping them up.

Take a look at just one of Vacasa’s properties, the Whispering Pines Lodge in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Bookings at the 11-bedroom lodge are 97.5% higher than they were at this point two years ago, with occupancy for the summer already at nearly 100%.

Hotels, which are still experiencing a year-over-year decrease in occupancy of more than 20%, are also welcoming the summer rush.

The Roxbury at Stratton Falls, a whimsical resort in the Catskills with intricate themed cottages, came very close to shutting down for good after its summer 2020 opening was met with a flurry of cancellations.

“This year we’re facing the opposite problem,” said Greg Henderson, a co-owner. “Demand is so high that by mid-April there will be no weekend availability all the way through October.”

“Demand is real,” said Betsy O’Rourke, chief marketing officer for Xanterra Travel Collection, which manages lodges and restaurants at national parks, including Grand Canyon National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. “We are sold out for most dates throughout the summer and fall.”

A welcoming industry

Many travelers are booking trips in a bid to finally have the celebrations that were dampened or outright canceled in 2020, and hotels and tour operators are gladly leaning into the trend.

The Langham New York will fill a hotel room with balloons and Champagne for travelers who want to celebrate — or do over — a birthday or anniversary; a nearby hotel, the Baccarat New York, offers a similar package that includes a personalized gift to commemorate a guest’s 2020 missed milestone.

No travel sector has been harder hit by the pandemic than cruises, and most major cruise lines aren’t even considering restarting U.S. sailings until the fall.

But customers are nevertheless booking for later in the year, especially on smaller ships. Uniworld, a boutique river cruise operator, runs a Christmas-themed European cruise down the Danube every winter; this year they are also launching two special Christmas in July cruises for travelers who felt that their 2020 Christmas was a wash.

Cheaper fares and flexible bookings Still Available

For those looking to travel this summer but not sure when they should pull the purchase trigger, travel advisers say that the longer you wait, the more you’ll spend.

“Prices are starting to move up, but there are still a lot of deals to be found,” said Brett Keller, Priceline’s CEO. “Hotel prices, for example, continue to be discounted almost 20% versus the past several years, with the greatest discounts still available at higher quality 3- and 4-star hotels.”

And Adit Damodaran, the economist at Hopper, predicts that airfare prices will begin to climb in April before topping out in early summer. “Typically we see a gradual rise from mid-April to July, where flights are steadily more expensive the closer they are to summer. This year it looks like a wave rolling in,” he said.

Another reason to book now? Most of the flexible booking policies introduced at the beginning of the pandemic remain in place, allowing travelers to change or cancel hotel and airfare reservations without incurring huge fees.

‘A kind of euphoria’

Henderson, of The Roxbury at Stratton Falls, admits it’s hard to trust the optimistic signs for his business after such a difficult year. While he was fighting for his business in New York, his brother in Oklahoma nearly died of COVID.

“We all have a form of PTSD,” he said.

But both he and his husband were able to receive their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine this month after eligibility in New York was expanded to hotel workers. Two weeks after he receives his second shot, he said, he is going to plan a trip to Oklahoma to see his brother.

“I’m not saying I’m buying it yet, but I am looking,” he said. “There’s a kind of euphoria. And if I’m feeling that way, I know plenty of other people must be feeling the same way too.”

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